What You Should and Shouldn’t Store in a Safe Deposit Box

where should I store my estate plan

The thought of losing your home or its contents in a disaster is a scary thought. Loss of life, destruction of irreplaceable items such as home movies, photos, and heirlooms make it unconscionable. But as we know in life, sometimes the unthinkable happens. Which is why it is important to be prepared in the event it does. To that end, one of the safeguards people frequently take advantage of to protect valuable items is a safe deposit box.

A safe deposit box is a metal box stored in a vault at a bank or credit union. Safe deposit boxes come in various sizes, depending on how much you have to store. While they are designed to withstand fire and water and be secure against theft, nothing can ever be 100 percent effective. It is the reason why discussing what to store in a safe deposit box and what not to deserves a few minutes of your attention. It could save you much more time, not to mention aggravation and potentially legal fees, later.

Given the access that all of us have today for both physical and digital storage, safe deposit boxes are not as popular, especially among younger generations, as they once were. Though storing valuables in your mattress or burying them in the yard might have seemed like a great idea to our elders, these methods, too, can present their own issues, making a safe deposit box a safer bet.

If utilized wisely, a safe deposit box can provide the happy medium you are looking for in terms of protection, at least for some of your valuables. Here are a few thoughts about what you should store and not store in a safe deposit box.

To store or not store in a safe deposit box?

A good rule of thumb to abide by when deciding what to store in a safe deposit box is whether there is a chance you will need that valuable in a pinch. Though banks and credit unions have expanded their hours of operations in recent years, nonetheless, they are only open for limited hours each day and are often closed at least one day a week and on specific holidays throughout the year.

Unfortunately, emergencies don’t always happen during normal business hours. So, if you think you will need to access anything inside your safe deposit box within a short timeframe, think seriously about alternative storage options. To give you a more specific idea about what you should and shouldn’t store, consider using the following lists as a guideline.        

Store it:

  • Copies of important documents
  • Originals of important personal documents including birth certificates, marriage licenses, divorce decrees, death certificates, adoption papers, documentation of citizenship, and social security cards
  • Deeds and other property records, including your mortgage documents and survey
  • Car title
  • Original paper stock and bond certificates
  • Information you wouldn’t want someone else to get their hands on
  • A list of your digital assets including your usernames and passwords
  • Personal papers (whatever that means to you)
  • School records such as final transcripts that could be challenging to replace
  • Copies (but not the originals) of estate planning documents (wills, living wills, powers of attorney, advanced medical directives, etc.)
  • Documentation reflecting discharge from the military
  • Important business documents such as contracts and other records
  • An inventory of your home’s contents to provide to your homeowner’s insurance company in case of flood, fire, or other disasters
  • Hard drives and flash drives of important information
  • Keepsake jewelry and sentimental heirlooms
  • Valuable jewelry and collectibles, as long as they are insured
  • Old photos you can never replace (as an added safeguard, consider scanning them so they are saved digitally)
  • Whatever else you don’t need immediate access to but would be hard to replace quickly and easily

Don’t store it.

  • Anything illegal (If you are unclear what that means, and it is not always clear, inquire about it.)
  • Your original will (If this is stored in your safe deposit box and your executor is not a joint owner or co-signer of the safe deposit box, they will not be able to access the safe deposit box to access your will. A separate court process will be required to gain access to your original will, which can increase legal fees and headaches for your grieving loved ones.)
  • Cash. (Cash is best stored elsewhere, where it’s protected. Although cash up to $250,000 stored in a bank is protected by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), protection doesn’t apply to cash held in a safe deposit box.)
  • Uninsured valuables
  • Passports
  • Your only copies of important documents
  • Anything you might need to access immediately

Should you have a co-signer on your safe deposit box?

Having a co-signer on your safe deposit box can be a smart idea. However, you do have to consider the trustworthiness of the person you choose. People who suffer from addiction, those whose track record for honesty is spotty, those who aren’t organized, and those living far away are not generally the best choices.

For starters, when you rent a safe deposit box, the bank or credit union where it is located will generally give you two keys to access it. If you or your co-signer loses your key, the establishment will generally charge a fee to replace it, which can become even more costly if the bank has to change the lock on the box itself. A lost key can also delay a co-signer access to the safe deposit box, a delay that could prove costly in more ways than just with money if you or they are in need of the box’s contents right away.

When picking a co-signer for your safe deposit box, make sure the person is not only someone you can trust but someone who can get to the box’s location quickly and easily if you are unable to. It is important to note that once an individual dies, the safe deposit box in their name will be sealed when the bank learns of a signatory’s death and the contents of the box will become subject to probate.

Apart from the issues around probate, a sealed box could present difficulties for a family needing to access critical information, such as a will. Again, this is the reason why original estate planning documents should be stored at home, perhaps in a home safe while ensuring the executor has the keys or is aware of the code to the safe, or fireproof box or envelope there.

We think the best place to store your original estate planning documents is in a fireproof envelope in a quick-access location that your family is aware of. This could be a filing cabinet within your home. 

What’s the bottom line?

Think outside the (safe deposit) box. While safe deposit boxes can serve a valuable function, they can present the exact headaches you intended them to prevent. Because protecting your estate planning documents is part of estate planning, we can offer you advice on where and with whom to place your valuables — and your trust. Call our Seattle estate planning lawyers today.

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